President Obama should reconsider his upcoming trip to Myanmar. While the ruling junta appears to be making reforms, there is less there than meets the eye.
President Thein Sein's government has opened up the political process, freeing longtime political prisoner Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and even allowing her and dozens of her fellow party members to serve in Parliament. He has also loosened up some of the state control of the economy.
As a result, he has erased the country's international pariah status and half a century of isolation, both self-imposed and externally maintained. The military has ruled since 1962. But despite their firm grip on power, the generals have always felt they are riding on the back of an angry and wounded tiger.
"We do not want to end up like the Arab dictators," Shwe Mann, once the third most powerful general in the junta, told reporters last December after meeting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "One day, they were very powerful. The next day, they died ignoble deaths."
But don't be fooled. The ex-military officers and their active-duty brethren retain complete monopoly control over all aspects of reforms. In the new era of "democratic transition," these men continue to hold all levers of state power. And it is these "men on horseback," not collaborating dissidents or developmental technocrats, who determine the reforms' nature, scope, priorities and pace.
Still today, the Burmese army brutally represses ethnic minorities, and army-owned mining and commercial agricultural companies boot ordinary farmers off their ancestral lands. It is the ethnic minority regions that are being designated as the sites of virtually all mega-development initiatives, resource extractions, special economic zones and industrial agricultural schemes worth billions of dollars.
But we don't hear about any of that in Washington, where the emphasis is on the new strategy of "pivoting" back to Asia. This pivot has made it possible for the generals to come out of their bunkers. The Americans want the Burmese to walk away from Beijing's embrace. The Burmese, for their part, are grateful to Washington in helping wean them off of China's international protection in exchange for dropping the U.S. demand for regime change in Myanmar (the name that the ruling clique has given to the country historically known as Burma). This is a classic geostrategic symbiosis that is looking increasingly promising for the junta and the Pentagon.
The generals are pursuing reforms largely for the wrong reasons — for their own long-term survival, politically and economically. Motives do matter. As a direct consequence, they remain wholly unprepared to do what is necessary to promote public welfare and advance the cause of freedom, human rights and democracy. So, the generals talk the talk of peace, but do not walk the walk.
Myanmar's reforms are, upon closer look, more about the interests and longevity of the country's military rests than about interethnic peace, public welfare or democracy.
These are reasons enough for Obama to stay away.
Maung Zarni is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and founding director of the Free Burma Coalition (1995-2004).
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